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article imageCanadian politicians secretly end oil sands-water investigation

By Stephanie Dearing     Jul 7, 2010 in Environment
Ottawa - Since the development of Canada's tar sands began in the 1960's, there has not been a lack of controversy. The latest controversy is a secret decision of a House of Commons committee to scrap an investigation into tar sands pollution of water.
Canwest News Service broke the latest shocker July 6, saying the news service learned an 18 month investigation into Canada's tar sands and pollution of water by the federal government was cancelled in mid-June in a secret meeting.
Canwest News Service also said the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development also decided to destroy draft copies of the final report. No rationale for either decision was provided to Canwest.
Minutes of the June 17th in-camera meeting only state "... Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the Committee on Tuesday, March 16, 2010, the Committee resumed its study of the oil sands and Canada's water resources.
It was agreed, — That the Committee cease its study of the oil sands and Canada's water resources.
It was agreed, — That all circulated copies of the confidential draft report be returned to the Clerk of the Committee and destroyed (paper and electronic version).
It was agreed, — That any member of the Environment Committee be authorized to consult the one original copy of the draft report kept in the Committee Clerk's office."
The Committee announced the hearings in May 2009, saying in a press release "...The Committee has undertaken this study to better understand the situation surrounding the effects of oil sands development on water resources and the role the federal government can play in reducing risks as development evolves. It will be hearing from a wide variety of stakeholders including Aboriginal peoples, industry representatives, academics and non-governmental organisations. The study is focusing on the following themes: water quality and quantity, technology, the impact of climate change, Aboriginal issues (health), governance and strategic environmental assessment." The Committee held several hearings in 2009.
Peter Lehner, writing for the Natural Resources Defence Council's blog, Switchboard said Alberta's tar sands industries have created 65 square miles of settlement ponds, and that tailing ponds from the tar sands leak approximately 1 billion gallons of contaminated water each year. "The tailing ponds surrounding the tar sands oil operations leak about 1 billion gallons of water a year—water that includes benzene, cyanide, naphthenic acids, phenols, and a host of other chemicals harmful to fish not to mention human beings. And yet, the federal government has never prosecuted documented cases of unlawful discharge."
That leakage of contaminated waters prompted Environmental Defence Canada to make a citizen's submission to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which is a NAFTA agency. Environmental Defence announced the action in a press release in April 2010, saying "The submission alleges that the Canadian government is failing to enforce the anti-pollution provisions of the federal Fisheries Act by allowing the tar sands tailings ponds to leak contaminated materials into both surface waters and groundwater in the Athabasca watershed."
The organization's Policy Director, Matt Price, said “The federal government keeps saying it wants better environmental management in the tar sands, yet it is failing to enforce laws already on the books that could make this happen. If the Harper government is sincere, it will replace its tar sands public relations around the world with enforcement back at home.”
The submission was made jointly by Environmental Defence Canada, the American Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and three people who live downstream from the tar sands; Albertan John Rigney, Saskatchewan resident, Don Deranger, and Daniel T'Seleie in the Northwest Territories.
A key issue raised in the concerns about the pollution of waters from tailing ponds is a chemical called Napthenic acids. Greenpeace Canada describes the acid as naturally occurring in the tar sands, but processing of the sands to obtain the crude oil results in high concentrations of the dissolved acid in the tailing ponds.
No one will say why the investigation was suddenly halted, but according to a press release issued by Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia, Member of Parliament for Lac-Saint-Louis and Chair of the National Liberal Water Caucus, the ending of the investigation was due to "... the Conservative government’s ongoing efforts to block the completion of an environment committee study on the impact of the oil sands industry on Canada’s freshwater." Scarpaleggia, who was the impetus behind the investigation, went on to say “The Conservatives on the committee are pursuing a strategy of obstruction aimed at shielding Environment Minister Jim Prentice and the Harper government from reaction that could follow the release of a committee report that highlights the negative effects the oil sands are having on Canada’s freshwater resources, namely in the Athabasca River watershed.
Even though the committee decided to devote itself to the study’s draft report until the summer recess, the Conservatives persist in attempting to derail our work plan by introducing surprise motions to modify the committee’s already agreed-upon agenda."
Scarpaleggia, who has been asking for a national water vision and strategy said he would try to have the Committees meetings held openly. The last meeting was June 15, and there are no documents from that meeting available to the public.
More about Standing committee environment sustainable, Tar sands, Napthenic acid
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